Hannah, longing, and listening

In the Old Testament reading for today, Hannah is praying to the Lord in the temple, because she is barren and yet greatly desires a child. She promises the Lord that if she is granted to conceive and bear a child, that she will give him entirely to the Lord, as a servant in the temple, rather than hanging on to him as her own. Later on, in Luke’s Gospel, Luke will pick up on the theme of Hannah in his narrative presentation of Mary, whose Magnificat closely parallels the song that Hannah will sing when she comes to conceive Samuel. Like Hannah, Mary conceives and bears a child that she will have to give back to the Lord—a gift given and then entirely returned to God. Samuel will grow up in the temple and Hannah will not be a mother to him in the same way that other mothers are. Mary’s heart will be pierced with a sword, just as her son will be pierced on a cross as she watches.

But all that is yet to come. Meanwhile, Hannah speaks to the Lord in her longing. Longing is such a basic part of what it means to be human. Even many non-Christian thinkers like Plato (think of the Symposium and its reflections on eros) characterize the basic human disposition in terms of longing. Our longing is rooted in an incompleteness that characterizes human life: whatever we already have, we always seem to want something more, something further that is not already in hand. This wanting has less to do with the objects of our love at the moment and more to do with us, as creatures of longing and incompleteness. For Hannah, and for us, it’s precisely what brings us to the Lord, though, to be in touch with our wanting and to come to understand better the nature of our desire. Following our desires, down to the very root of what they are about, is precisely what brings us to God, for whom we are made.

It’s amusing in some ways that Eli thinks that Hannah has had too much to drink, for while Hannah is having a profound, personal conversation with the Lord, he thinks he is seeing something different than he is. Eli brings a lot of presuppositions about this woman to his perceptions, and it’s only when he listens deeply to her story that he understands it. As will also be true in the New Testament, there is a lot of judging of women by men, and only occasionally, deep listening. But trying to listen to and to understand other people’s stories, and other people’s modes of longing, rather than judging them, is crucial to letting the Lord into our lives. Eli eventually offers his blessing to Hannah, and in that blessing is the fruitfulness that will bring Samuel into Eli’s own life.

In the end, Eli does listen, but more importantly, God listens and blesses Hannah. It’s because she is so blessed that she is able to make return to the Lord of her child. While her story is distinctive, in other ways it’s much like the story of every mother who must return her children as they grow up to the world, to live their own lives, and to God. The gift is made possible when we recognize that the source of our own children’s lives is in God who gave them to us first.